Sam jumped hard enough to spill her drink over her hand. "Oh. Yes. Sure. Thanks."
"Glad to hear it. Want to dance?"
She resisted the urge to throw the remaining half-glass of lemonade in Luis' face. "No thanks."
"Because, you know, he's not going to ask you."
Don't let him get to you. Sam put on her best confused, slightly stupid smile. "Who?"
"You know who. Don't waste your time with that one. You can do better." He turned and wandered away, threading his way between groups of ISO Racing employees, all of whom apparently were having fun.
That was what the Christmas party was for, after all. Fun. Talking. Dancing. Spending time with your colleagues in a non-work situation. She'd been looking forward to it. She'd bought a new dress, and heels carefully chosen so she could dance in them. She'd dug out her old makeup kit and, wondering that she'd once spent this much time every single day, had made herself look pretty darn good. She'd even put her hair up.
Jason hadn't even looked at her. He was sprawled in an armchair over in the corner, suit jacket discarded, tie askew, with two of the bleach-blonde bimbos whose racing-related skills extended to carrying announcement placards round while wearing hotpants. One was on his lap, the other draped artfully across the arm of the chair. Both were extremely and loudly drunk. Jason...well, she knew he wasn't drunk. G-Force's Condor didn't drink.
She didn't know why she'd assumed this meant he wouldn't sleep around, or be attracted to brainless tarts whose IQ was about the same as their cup size and who wouldn't know a spark plug from an alternator.
She also didn't know why she'd thought he would be remotely interested in her. She was his mechanic. He worked with her every day. Of course he wasn't going to go beyond their strictly professional relationship.
But still...Bimbo Number One couldn't even get her eyeliner straight, and Bimbo Number Two so needed a bra three sizes larger than the one she was squeezed into. What could he possibly see in them?
"Here." It was Luis again. "Since I made you pour your last drink all over your shoes."
He offered her a second glass of lemonade. With ice and two slices of lemon, just the way she liked it. He wore an immaculate navy ISO lieutenant's uniform, two shades darker than her own shimmering mid-blue outfit, and with his dark hair slicked back he was better looking than she'd given him credit for.
Over in the corner, there was the sound of drunken female laughter. A third, male, voice joined in.
"Yes," she said, maybe a little too loudly. "Yes, I'd like to dance."
Dammit, she was going to have fun. Jason Alouita didn't know what he was missing.
By the time he left an hour later, he was minus the tie altogether and apparently the only thing keeping his paramours vertical. By then, Sam actually was having fun. Luis was a seriously good dancer. Dave O'Leary, in a very similar uniform, was better. Jeff nearly as good (though he was too old for her, and married, and Melissa was watching particularly closely) and she'd even managed to tempt Ed onto the dance floor. He was not a good dancer. But the howls of laughter from the other mechanics had been well worth having her feet stepped on.
And then there was one last slow dance. Jeff handed her off to Luis with a smile and reached for Melissa, and she decided she didn't care any more. It was just a Christmas party. Just for fun. She linked her hands behind Luis' neck, rested her head on his shoulder, and swayed to the music. His hands were warm and strong on her bare back, and it was almost perfect.
Almost. He wasn't Jason.
"Do you want a ride home?" Luis asked as they left the building, happy and sleepy and full of Christmas spirit.
Sam pointed at her car, parked alongside with a couple of others. "I drove round. Easier than walking in these shoes. If you give me a ride, I'll just have to walk back for the car tomorrow."
Only then did she think, He was asking if you want him to come home with you. Coffee. More, maybe. But she didn't want him to, no matter how friendly he'd been tonight. Jason might sleep around. She didn't, and Luis so wasn't the one.
"I'll see you Monday," she offered. "Thanks, Luis. I had a great time. Remind me to dance with you again."
"I'll do that." If he was disappointed, he had the grace not to show it.
A small flotilla of cabs pulled up for those partygoers who were old enough to drink (ISO, a military organisation, was more than a little strict in policing its younger employees at company events). Sam climbed into her own car with a yawn and replaced the heels with the flat shoes she'd left in the footwell. She wasn't a nightowl. Fortunately it was only a few hundred yards through the trailer park to home.
She pulled into the little cul-de-sac with sudden trepidation. Would there be an after-party going on, chatter and laughter and...noises? But Jason's trailer was dark and silent, the Nissan missing from its usual spot.
Probably took them somewhere with a king size bed, and silk sheets, and a sound system, and whipped cream.
And, despite her determination not to care, there were tears.
Sam woke to bright sunshine through the blinds and enough wind to make the trailer rock. Coffee and toast sounded good. She rolled out of bed and padded to the kitchen end of the trailer, stretching. Filled the kettle and clicked the ignition on the gas ring.
Clicked it again.
Still nothing. No smell of gas either.
"Crap," she said out loud, and headed back to the bedroom. She wasn't desperate enough for breakfast to go change the gas bottles over in her pyjamas.
Jeans and a sweatshirt later, she opened the door and promptly lost hold of it as the wind slammed it back against the side of the trailer with an almighty crash. Sam held her breath, but the glass in the window stayed put. Still, she held onto it with both hands as she struggled it closed again.
The gas bottles lived in a dog kennel-sized brick structure outside the kitchen window, and, to be fair, she'd been expecting the older one to run out for a few days now and the new one was sitting alongside, just waiting for her to switch the regulator over.
The regulator was stuck. Of course it was. Sam used a word which the other mechanics generally avoided if they thought she was within hearing range, fetched a wrench from the trunk of her car, and proceeded to beat the wretched thing into submission.
"You'll break it," a voice said from behind her.
She was rather proud that she managed not to jump. "I'm fine."
"I said I'm fine." She was a mechanic, for goodness sake. She fixed his car on a daily basis. Why would he think she couldn't fix a stupid gas valve?
"You looked stunning last night."
The wrench missed the regulator altogether, landing directly on the gas cylinder. An iron grip caught her wrist.
"I'm not being blown up by a gas explosion. Here." He reached past her, twisted the regulator off one-handed, slapped it onto the new cylinder, and locked the catch on.
"Thank you." She yanked her wrist free and went to put the wrench away.
Jason was at her car before she'd taken three steps toward it. "What's wrong, Sam? Did something happen last night?"
I am NOT going to cry. "You tell me." Despite her best efforts, her voice cracked.
Jason swore, or at least she assumed he did. It wasn't any language she'd ever heard. "We need to talk. Right now."
He herded her back inside her own trailer without giving her any opportunity to argue. Pulled the door shut, closed the blind on the dining area window.
"Sit down," he said.
She did so. What else was there to do? She trusted him absolutely, but even if she didn't, even if he planned to tidy up the mess he'd made when he'd told her who he really was, what could she do? He could kill her in a heartbeat.
"You know who I am. You know I have to have a cover story. What did you expect?"
Sam couldn't look him in the eye. She could feel herself flushing. But she had to say something.
"Dave and Luis...they turned up in uniform. They talked to me, and danced, and we had a good time. I expected that. That's all."
The seat creaked as he sat down opposite her. "What - you didn't like my suit?"
Cheap mid-brown polyester, last year's style. He'd looked like a wannabe gangster. "Not my taste. Sorry."
"Or maybe it was my choice of company."
This time she did look up. "Look, Jason, I know I'm not in your league. But hey, I figured you'd be aiming higher, not lower. You want a cover story? What the hell is wrong with 'I do the same as the other ISO security officers'? And no, you don't have to tell me. I know that what you do away from here is more important. Just please don't expect me to be able to joke about you getting off with... them."
"Getting off with them?"
"I don't want to discuss this. Just leave it, Jason. Please. I may not be bright but I try not to make the same stupid mistake twice."
He swore again. "Mark never got this crap. I hate my life."
"Mark?" She knew Mark, kinda. He'd come and watched Jason race a lot when she'd first come to ISO Racing. Enough that Carl and Ed had known him by name. He was an ISO Security officer, same as Jason's cover job. He'd been involved in the mess when she'd been used as a mole, and G-Force had ended up taking out a huge Spectran recruitment operation.
But why would Jason be talking about Mark? Dave had been involved in that too, and Dave was a driver.
"Oh," she said. "Mark's --?"
"Dammit, I must be more tired than I thought. Forget I said that. Forget you ever thought it." He sounded weary, and defeated. Sam might only be a junior mechanic but she knew these things weren't good, not for a G-Forcer.
"I'm making coffee."
"I can't drink coffee."
"And I can't talk to you about it."
But he didn't get up. He sat there, arms folded on the table, and Sam had the impression he was resisting the urge to drop his head onto them and shut his eyes. How many times had G-Force been in the news this week? At least three. Every one a report featuring a major Spectran attack thwarted somewhere, with footage of hand-to-hand fighting, and explosions, and giant ships performing gut-wrenching manoeuvres. Jason was the Condor. He was in command. He hadn't just been involved in them, he'd been making all the decisions.
Coffee it was, then.
Jason visibly relaxed when she handed him the mug. Wrapped his hands around it, breathed in the steam, only then started to sip at it. He was half way down it before he spoke.
"I guess if I was just a security officer, there would be things I could tell you. Not that I think it'll help. Do you remember Lucy?"
Oh, man. She'd heard the rumours.
"I didn't know her. I know you did, and that she died at the end of a race."
"A race we drove together. Sure. And that we argued and I pushed her off a top floor balcony and got away with it somehow?"
Sam felt herself flush. "I heard that. I don't bel--"
"I met Lucy when I first came to ISO Racing. She drove for Calman."
Sam nodded. Calman Racing was based in the next building. Their rivalry was friendly, most of the time.
"We went out a few times, nothing too serious. Then the war started. I was... busy. I didn't see her for a while, and then I heard she'd left. A few months later I was invited to drive Africa 9000, and I found she was my co-driver."
He stared at the far wall, but Sam suspected he was seeing something completely different.
"She'd been taken by Spectra and turned into a cyborg. They'd left just enough of Lucy in there for her to kill herself rather than follow her programming and work for them any longer. No, I didn't push her. She jumped. If she'd still been human, I'd have stopped her."
Sam gasped, but Jason carried on without a pause.
"And then there was Katrina. I know you met her." He snorted. "I know you didn't much like her."
Katrina had been one of last season's less loveable racetrack groupies: mostly wannabe Z-list celebrities who hung around in hopes of catching a race driver boyfriend. She'd latched onto Jason, and he hadn't exactly rejected her advances. Then she'd vanished apparently overnight. He'd never mentioned her again, and Sam hadn't thought about her since.
"She was a Spectran agent in training. She wanted to use me to gain access to the ISO building in town. We set her up, and when her assassination attempt failed, she suicided. I wasn't quick enough to stop her."
Not liked was one thing. She'd been a Spectran agent? She was dead?
"But... they don't know who you are. Do they?" It made no sense that Jason would have to hide his identity like this, if the Spectrans already knew who the Condor was.
He shook his head. "No, but that's not what they want. They want a way to get someone into ISO, and ISO Racing isn't inside the military security systems."
She didn't get it.
"ISO Racing is the weakest system. You're a mechanic - how do we make sure engines fail somewhere we can fix them?"
That she did get. "Sacrificial weak spot."
"Yeah. So, you're a Spectran agent, you're looking for a way into ISO, you see an ISO department in a nice civilian industrial estate, and you have a choice of employees to try to use to get you involved. How are you going to do it?"
Sam just stared, but he waited, grey eyes boring into hers.
"I...um, I'd offer the junior employees a job on the side?"
He grinned at the reference, rather to her relief. "They already tried that, and G-Force smacked them good and hard and took down an entire recruiting operation in the process. No, there are two things they do. They try to set themselves up as girlfriends for anyone who doesn't have one. And they go after existing wives and girlfriends - most people's loyalties start wavering when someone they love is in danger."
Sam gulped. "Melissa? Melissa's baby?"
"Or the disillusioned Aussie junior driver who'll sleep with anything in a skirt. Got to be an easier target than Jeff the clean-cut all-American hero."
"Oh." She gulped. "That's horrible. ISO Racing isn't the sacrificial weak spot. You are. Why you? Don't you have enough to worry about already?"
"I can handle it. And if I can't, I can call in the big guns."
"I told you to forget I said that."
"Oh. Yes. Sorry."
"Spectra line up their female agents and throw them at me, and I make sure they fail right after they've apparently gone past the point where I can help. Dave and Luis get to dress up all smart in their uniforms and look down their noses at me." He snorted. "Fifi and Trixibelle get a night in an expensive hotel room."
"Fifi and... they can't have been called that."
"Don't know, don't care. I won't use them as my cover again or I'd be putting them in danger too." He caught her eye again. "And I didn't sleep with them. Not that they'll remember. They were both so blind drunk they were dead to the world five minutes after we checked in."
"What, that I didn't get my drunken orgy? Why do you think I made sure they were completely plastered?" He drained the last of his coffee and stood up. "I need to go. Thanks for letting me vent."
"Any time," she said to empty air.
And then she sat and thought.
He hadn't needed to do any of that. He must have people he could talk to over at ISO. High-ranking people, with security clearances. He could have left her disillusioned and frustrated, losing any interest she'd ever had in getting to know him better.
He hadn't. He'd told her the truth. He'd made a particular point of how he hadn't slept with his... what? Dates? Tools? She should probably feel sorry for them, being used like that, though she didn't.
He'd told her that he couldn't, under any circumstances, have anyone special. Then he'd made it clear that he didn't have anyone casual either. Was that a hint? That he was waiting until he could have someone special? And he'd shared this with her?
"Sam, you're dreaming," she said out loud, and took the mugs to wash up.